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A Protestant Views The Filioque

June 27, 2014 Frontpage No Comments


A recent article in Christianity Today (January-February 2014) by a Protestant of Lebanese descent, Bradley Nassif, a professor of biblical and theological studies at North Park University in Chicago, attracts attention to one of the major historical and dogmatic differences between the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches, namely whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father alone (as the separated Orthodox hold) or from the Father and the Son (as Catholics believe with their inclusion of the word “Filioque” [“and the Son”] in the Latin text of the Creed).
Over a thousand years of theological controversy regarding the orthodoxy of the “Filioque” has served to embitter relations between Catholics and Orthodox to this very day and to justify the breaking of full communion between them, marking the most tragic ecclesiastical schism in the history of the Church.
Professor Nassif asks if the controversy over the Filioque is but a trivial one and fundamentally unimportant, or has that “one small change [in the Creed] affect[ed] the whole of Christian life and thought,” as some Orthodox have claimed. Does the “Filioque” destroy a proper understanding of the mystery of the Trinity? He notes that “the Protestant Reformers of the 16th century, including Martin Luther and John Calvin, supported the Filioque.”
Our author gives a fair assessment of the Eastern Orthodox side of the controversy. There are “two camps, one strict and one moderate. Many strict thinkers regarded the Filioque as dangerous and heretical — a view held by people such as Photius (ninth century), Mark of Ephesus (15th century), and Vladimir Lossky (20th century). They claim the Filioque confuses the eternal relations among the divine Persons and destroys the priority of the Father within the Trinity. If both the Father and the Son are sources of the Trinity, then the Spirit is subordinated to both, leading to a belief in two gods. Lossky has even blamed the Filioque for the Catholic emphasis on papal supremacy (a position today’s more moderate Orthodox writers find farfetched)….
“‘Strict’ theologians think Filioque creates an imbalance among the members of the Trinity, destroys the Father as ‘sole source’ of the Son and Spirit, and violates church unity.
“. . . Meanwhile moderate Orthodox think the Filioque can be true if we say that the Spirit proceeds from the Father ‘through the Son.’ Only if, in other words, the Son mediates — not causes — the Spirit’s procession from the Father alone. Regardless of the strict or moderate positions, Eastern theologians agree that there are two issues at stake in the Filioque debate: the truth of the doctrine itself, and unilaterally altering a creed that was accepted by an earlier ecumenical Council [the Council of Constantinople, AD 381].”
What the above exposition reveals is the doctrinal conflict among Orthodox theologians who condemn the Filioque doctrine as blatantly heretical, those willing to accept the Filioque if properly explained as conforming to the Orthodox teaching that the Father alone is the origin of the Spirit, and those other “moderates” (not mentioned by our author) who accept the Filioque as it is taught and defended in Catholic theology. Those in the last group candidly acknowledge that it represents an acceptable clarification of a revealed truth that was taught by such Greek Fathers as St. Epiphanius and St. Cyril of Alexandria, such Latin Fathers as Saints Augustine, Jerome, Hilary, Ambrose, and such Roman Pontiffs as Saints Leo the Great, Hormisdas, and Gregory the Great.
The doctrine that the Holy Spirit proceeded from both the Father and the Son, and expressed in the formulation of the Filioque, was upheld by the entire Western Church long before the Orthodox consummated the schism in the 13th century.
In reply to Byzantine Greek dissent, the Western Church’s greatest theologians (Saints Peter Damian, Anselm, Bernard, Albert the Great, Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, and Blessed John Duns Scotus) taught in accordance with Scripture and the Tradition handed down from the apostles that the Eternal Son of God cannot be excluded from His active role in breathing forth the Spirit from all eternity.
No explanation of the Father as the ultimate source in the Holy Trinity is acceptable which denies that the Son is one and equal with the Father in the procession of the Holy Spirit. The doctrine stressing the divine equality of the Son with the Father had been denied by Arian and Adoptionist heretics and it was soon grasped that the divine equality of the Son with the Father could not be maintained without affirming that the Spirit receives His existence simultaneously from the Father and the Son and proceeds eternally from both by a single spiration as from a single principle.
To avoid a serious misinterpretation of the Filioque, the famous Council of Lyons (1274) defined that the Spirit proceeds eternally from the Father and from the Son, not as from two principles or causes but as from one single principle or cause. That is to say, the Son receives from the Father the power to be together with Him the one cause or principle of the Spirit who proceeds principally from the Father.
The great Reunion Council of Ferrara-Florence (1439), attended by a special delegation of Byzantine theologians, witnessed exhaustive discussion and debates concerning the Filioque and the trinitarian doctrine it embodied. Agreement was finally reached that “everything that belongs to the Father, the Father has given to His Son by begetting Him, except the fact of being Father; consequently, the Holy Spirit’s proceeding from the Son, this the Son has eternally from the Father who eternally begets Him.” It furthermore defined that “it was for the purpose of declaring the truth and under stress of necessity that those words ‘and the Son’ were added to the Creed by way of explanation, both lawfully and with good reason.”
Professor Nassif refers to “what the global church has been debating for the past 1,500 years.” This “global church” of Protestants does not exist; it is a mere abstraction without form or content. He ignores that the Catholic Church is the only “global church.” It was her fathers, saints, and councils who defended and expounded the orthodox doctrine of the Holy Trinity.
It is not surprising that Professor Nassif concludes his article by leaving it up to the reader to decide for himself whether “the East or West,” who have disputed for 1,500 years with the most subtle arguments involving an article of faith, was faithful to divine Revelation! As is known, some Protestants have proved all too ready to junk the Filioque for the sake of a false ecumenism. The Protestant reliance on private judgment of Scripture and/or Tradition to deal with questions affecting the awesome mystery of God’s unity in the Trinity of Persons can only lead to chaos and cannot arrive at religious certitude.
We can also see how ecclesiastical separation from the infallible See of Peter by the patriarchs and bishops of the 16 autocephalous Byzantine Greco-Slav churches has only led to confusing variations in their doctrine concerning the procession of the Holy Spirit, and a departure from the patristic teaching of their own Eastern tradition. Even the ecumenical-minded Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople not too long ago deplored “the addition to the Symbol [Creed] of one and only word: the familiar ‘Filioque,’ to create new caco-doxies and schisms and heresies, which, to this day holds Western Christianity a long way from the Orthodox East” (quoted in Orthodox Press, May 11, 2010).
Other hard-core “anti-Catholic Orthodox” have not hesitated to excoriate “the isolationist, anti-trinitarian doctrine known as the ‘filioque’.” Thus a Russian Orthodox priest in England has indulged in fantastic allegations concerning “the ideology of papism, this ideology known as the filioque and stating that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Pope of Rome.” (!)
Catholics cannot give sufficient thanks to our Lord for having established an infallible and unerring magisterial (teaching authority) for His Church in the Successor of Peter the Rock and the bishops in communion with him so that the Church could not fail to be the “Teacher of Truth.”

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(James Likoudis has written many articles on Catholic-Eastern Orthodox relations. See his website: www.jameslikoudispage.com.)

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